The Woman Who Lived in a Closet

An Open Letter to High School Graduates in 2016:

In the spring of 1373, a 30-year-old woman in a small English town of Norwich met God. Well, maybe. Her name has been forgotten, but her sixteen visions led her to become one of the most famous Christians of her day. She decided to dedicate her life to seclusion and contemplation, so she became an anchorite, a person who lives permanently shut up in a room attached to a church. The woman sealed herself in a 12’x12’ cell with small holes (called squints!) connected to St. Julian’s Church in Norwich, through which she could receive the Eucharist, small morsels of food, and listen to the services. She became known as Julian of Norwich, and she wrote the first book in English credited to a woman[1].

Julian of Norwich met God and recorded his splendor in the first book ever credited to a woman. Her cat was unimpressed.

For a few centuries, being an anchorite (from the Greek word for “withdraw”) was a relatively small but respected niche. Although they were secluded, anchorites were often influential. They could give counsel and share their wisdom, and in this way, have an outsized impact on the communities in which they lived. In the Netherlands, Bertken of Utrecht, spent part of her time writing tracts and songs, which were very popular. She was so well known that when she died, six guards had to manage the crowd of people who came to pay their respects. Julian herself was the subject of many pilgrimages; people who died left her money (which was a big deal — nobody had much money to leave). Her book — which explained the sixteen visions she’d had of God — was widely read; one of the most often-cited parts is her vision of god with all of creation:

“In this same time our Lord showed to me a ghostly sight of his homely loving. He showed a little thing the size of a hazel nut in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked there upon with the eye of my understanding and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And God answered thus: “It is all that is made.””
Legendary explorer… with the dead eyes of a stone-cold killer.

Now, it’s been very nice of you to read three boring paragraphs about strange medieval women living in boxes, but it’s almost the weekend, and you’re probably wondering what sort of stupid message this is building to, so let me get to the point. In just a few short months, you’re about to leave your home, which may make you seem as though you are about as different from Julian of Norwich as Dora the Explorer is from, say, Charles Manson[2]. Whereas Julian confined herself to a booth, you are setting course for the second star to the left, straight on ’til morning. And where Julian’s life was absorbed by the quiet contemplation of a small but pivotal experience, you intend to fill your plate with the full assortment of offerings laid out by college’s buffet[3]. What could you possibly have in common with this strange little woman, enclosed within her church, endlessly contemplating the same worship for the rest of her life?

Modern day anchorite. The irony is soul-crushing.

Here’s the thing — if you look closely at adulthood (whose antecedent is college), you’ll recognize that there are some unmistakable parallels. Many of us work in cubicles, ensconced in routine, eating at the same restaurants, shopping at the same chains, trafficking in the same thoughts over and over again. We stick to our favorite news programs, read the preferred news sites, converse with a shrinking circle friends on Twitter or Snapchat, growing more routine and predictable by the year, seeking out the warm comfort of confirmation bias. This behavior begins early in college — most universities, for instance, have some sort of Greek life or social sorting that works in subtle ways to separate you from anyone who may think, look, or behave differently from you. This habit is often most comically underscored when you discover American students studying abroad… in a tavern drinking familiar beers… with other Americans[4]. It’s safe inside the anchorhold. Warm. Snug. When Julian was sealed in hers, a priest recited a rite of enclosure, not unlike a burial. College — and adulthood — is not quite a tomb. But it’s sometimes not so far removed from a womb.

If there’s one thing I’m proud of about this generation, it’s that you were sometimes made uncomfortable. Not just by the scoliosis-inducing desks, but by the constant low-stakes exposure to ideas and beliefs different from your own. Sometimes this contact was curious or intriguing, like discovering a new room in a large house you thought you’d fully explored. But sometimes it was more like a collision, loud and unexpected, smashing up the space you used to occupy.

Follow Sister Imogen of Northamspshire on Instagram! So many cool images of… bricks!

This discomfort is a blessing. Seek it out. Even as anchorites seem to us archaic and outmoded, we grow more and more like them all the time. What is a carefully cultivated social media sphere if not the 21st century anchorhold? What is an Instagram post if not a message sent from our cell of something we spied through our squint? We yearn to connect to the outside world even as we shut it out, brick by brick, to prevent the unwelcome intrusion of the contrary, the confusing, and the sacrilegious. But if there’s anything I wish for you beyond the love and happiness that is your birthright, it’s the stubborn insistence of awkwardness.

College is bigger than your dorm room. Don’t be afraid. And while the universe to God may be nothing more than a ball in the palm of His hand, to you let it be as many new stars, as many new rooms, as you have days.

I am deeply proud of you all,

Mike Rossi

[1] Most of this information comes from an article published on Atlas Obscura on December 18, 2015, written by Sarah Laskow.

[2] Although… has Dora ever been photographed with Charles Manson? I’m still adjusting to Ted Cruz = The Zodiac Killer.

[3] Try the gray stuff; it’s delicious. Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes!

[4] Don’t do this.